Marathoners, Get an EKG

Getting into marathon shape is not easy, regardless of your weight, height or athletic history. Even once you make it to the finish line, you feel like your muscles are full of battery acid, ready to eat through your skin. You limp for days and wonder how you’ll ever manage to take another airborne step again. But one thing is certain: you’re likely to be in pretty good shape.

The buildup of mileage, the rush of oxygen and tearing up of muscle over the last four to six months have made you stronger. Your legs can carry you forward for hours, your resting heart beat has dropped a few beats per minute, and your body has become more energy efficient. There’s always one sign at every marathon emblazoned with some variation of the oft-quoted (but statistically unreliable) factoid that only 0.1% of the population has finished a marathon. We take that to heart, pun intended, because despite the noise and talk, we really are a minority.

The problem is that after many years of this, long-distance runners can fall into the trap of thinking they’re invincible. While the country (and increasingly the world) experiences public health and obesity crises, we stand somewhat apart, logging weekly miles and trying to eat right. Our reasons are diverse. We might have started training to lose weight, to challenge ourselves, or to carve out daily time to clear our minds. Whatever the cause, running between five and ten miles in one sitting is rarely a big deal to us.

But every so often the specter of doom rears its ugly head. I’m not talking about injuries – those happen to all of us and often enough that we know how to deal with most of them. I’m referring to the sobering fact that every so often, we are flooded with emails from friends and relatives all reminding us that someone died mid-race.

Long distance running is a unique sport. Few other sports allow thousands of amateur athletes to compete alongside the cream of the crop. Few other sports allow spectators to witness such incredible variance in performance over such a long period of time. We watch professional athletes on TV perform amazing feats, as they drop to the ground, heaving and sweating, but we never think they’re in any real danger. They are, after all, professionals. But that moment of security last a few minutes in a marathon as the elites and top 1% zip by. After that, it’s the throng of every-people, who run for fun or a sense of accomplishment.

The farther down the course you traverse, the more ragged everyone looks. The enthusiastic smiles of the first 10k become contorted in rictus grimaces, ebullient cheers are now hissed through gnashed teeth. As you watch people struggle to stay strong over such an unforgiving distance, it’s only natural to wonder whether the sport is good for them. And every so often, it seems like that question is given a dark answer.

First, the good news is that the numbers are on our side. If marathon running were truly bad for us, then we’d be seeing a lot more deaths. A recent Forbes article pins the likelihood of death from a marathon at 0.5 to 2 deaths for every 100,000 participants. While that is absolutely no comfort to the friends and family of the rare death, it does put the activity in perspective. For example, you are more likely to die while swimming, biking, playing football or even playing tennis and far more likely if you drive a car. Even with the boom that the sport is experiencing, deaths are very rare. A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that despite the increase in participants from 2000 to 2009, the low incidence remains the same.

But the fact that they still happen sends a shiver down our spines, regardless of our PR ambitions. This year alone there have been deaths at the New York City Half Marathon, the London Marathon, the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach and the Rock ‘n Roll Raleigh Half Marathon.  The fact that three of those examples were half marathons shows that the phenomenon is not limited to runners journeying 26.2 miles.

So why is it that some runners never cross the finish line? Dr. Peter McCullough from Dallas’ Baylor University Medical Center says that whenever a young, relatively fit person collapses mid-race, it’s most likely due to hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HCM). This is a condition where the heart muscle or myocardium is thickened and thus restricts blood flow. The biggest issue with this condition is that it is asymptomatic, or difficult to detect until you’re having a cardiac episode.

But there is a way to detect if you have any abnormalities in the heart, including HCM, and that’s by getting screened. This is done via electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), a device that measures the electrical activity of the heart. I went through the procedure in early May and it was completely painless. In addition to the EKG, I also underwent an ultrasound and a stress test, where I walked on an inclined treadmill with several electrodes attached to my chest. Every two minutes or so, the speed and incline increased until I was sweating bullets. During the ultrasound, I could see my heart expanding and contracting and each individual valve flapping effortlessly.

Most of the screening was, to be completely honest, a fun ego stroke. The majority of the patients that walk into the doctor’s practice were there because they had a problem and not for some peace of mind. Since HCM is a largely unfelt heart condition, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t that one unfortunate runner among the masses. After all, the most common fatalities occur in men in their 30s, albeit those with pre-existing, undiagnosed heart abnormalities.

It would seem somewhat reasonable to suggest then, that you too should get screened. If you are a serial marathoner, an ultrarunner or someone who routinely logs over 30 miles a week in the sport, it wouldn’t be unwise to take a look at your heart, especially if you experience any sort of chest pain or pressure during a run or if you have a family history of HCM.  Some might even say that routine checkups should be compulsory.  However, the American Heart Association has oddly not recommended mass screening. Their reasons have to do with resource allocation and logistics – there are simply many more health issues to tackle that take more lives and there are far too many active, athletic people in the United States to warrant that many EKGs (it’s also suggested that it would cut into cardiologists’ profit margins if widespread EKGs achieved economies of scale).

“The cardiac community is divided on this,” says Dr. McCullough. “But I fall in the camp where I think that everyone involved in serious athletics should have a echocardiogram, just like every woman who gets pregnant has two or three ultrasounds.”  Source

I agree completely. If you have the incentive (you are a serial marathoner or an ultrarunner) and the opportunity (you have decent health insurance), then by all means, get screened and run calm.

The Second Race (Chicago 13.1 Marathon Giveaway)

Disclosure: I was contacted by the marketing arm of the Michelob Ultra Chicago 13.1 Marathon with an invitation to run the race and promote it via Dan’s Marathon.  I ran this race in 2009, when Chicago went from having two half marathons to four, and remember it quite fondly.  I accepted their generous offer and will be giving away one free registration at the end of this post.

131chicagoRecently, a friend told me they were thinking of running a half marathon and asked if I thought they should.  I said Yes, and will always say Yes, especially if it’s a distance they’ve never run before.  I can’t imagine ever discouraging anyone from challenging themselves to achieve what their body has evolved to do with such grace and economy.  Of course do it, and do it with dedication, purpose and alacrity.

Because everyone knows that the first race of any distance is special.  It marks the maiden journey into the unknown and brings with it a swarm of nerves.  Many a runner has reached the starting line with frenzied hands and a jittery body, darting looks left and right, letting out exasperated sighs in anticipation of answering the important questions.

Did I train enough for this?  How fast should I start?  Are my time goals reasonable?  Did I eat enough this morning?  Is this weather too cold or just perfect? 

It’s a collection of emotions that I remember very fondly of all my first races, but most notably my first half and full marathons.  There was no way to guarantee that I’d return to the starting line strong or a broken shell of a once confident runner.  But these nerves and even doubts are part of the magic.  In fact, I’m very easily drawn to posts titled “My First Marathon” because of that vicarious desire to re-live those restive moments of near panic as the 26.2-mile journey unfolds ahead of a debutant.

Running the 2009 Chicago 13.1 Marathon

Running the 2009 Chicago 13.1 Marathon

Of course, once you cross the finish line, you know you’ve done it.  The mystery is solved, questions answered and challenge achieved.  Most likely you won’t even think of anything because your thoughts are being drowned out by music and your own barbaric screams.  But though training may have felt like forever, the moment of triumph is fleeting.  The race is over, you did it, and you don’t get another first chance.

So now we make room for the second race, which I find equally important and just as momentous.

The first race gets all the glitz and glory.  The medal earned a larger space on our mantles, the story likely racked up a greater word count and certainly attracted more accolades from our peers at the inevitable post-race bar party.  The second race isn’t regaled with the same attention and fondness and is often simplified to our desire to “do it again.”

However, I think there’s much more to it.  The second race is the one where most of us have already vanquished our demons of uncertainty.  We know how to show up to the start line healthy, fit and hungry for a fast time because we’ve done it already.  A few tweaks may have happened along the way and our average run time may have changed slightly, and there’s very little doubt anymore that we’ll finish.  But there is a chance that we’ll come up short.  Our previous best might kick harder.  It might not be our day.  That’s the chance we take when we come back.

The second time around, it’s no longer about achievement, it’s about competition.

First broken PR.

First broken PR.

Competition is what fueled me in that second race.  I learned that my body could run 13.1 miles during my first half marathon, but this time I was there to see how fast I could do it.  Because the second race is the first I ran against myself.  Though there may have been thousands of other racers out there, I only cared about my performance and I was intimately dialed into my efforts.

There’s something remarkable and subtle about besting one’s self.  We run with the rabbit of our first run scuttling nearby, an undeniable testament to what we can do.  But this is the second race, and it’s no longer about what we did but how much faster we can do it.  We are not playing it safe, staying behind our delicate lactate threshold, but instead pushing the envelope.  Running faster and harder may push us past our abilities but we won’t know until the race is over.  It’s almost as if we long for those daunting feelings of unpredictable outcomes that might not haunt us the second time.  If we can’t get our fix of uncertainty one way, we’ll find it elsewhere by raising the stakes.

Therein rests the true appeal and significance of the second race.  It not only gives us a chance to test ourselves against what we’ve already achieved, but the way in which we attack that challenge may say a lot about who we are as athletes and people.  Do we take the measured, conservative approach and simply add a few seconds to our pace per mile?  Or do we bet it all and hope to delay a premature collapse?

Do we rest our hopes on small, incremental change, or audacious, explosive progress?

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

Much like my running exploits, the 13.1 Marathon series was new in 2009.  I was very much a naïf in running shoes at the time, completely unaware of proper form and unlikely to name any famous marathoners, but I was acutely tuned into one number: 1:49:34.  My fastest and only half marathon time – the original PR.  Weather conditions were near perfect and I held nothing back.

The course started at the South Shore Cultural Center on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Chicago’s iconic skyline kept watch on the horizon behind a thick canopy of green.  The course would be flat, very fast and quite scenic.

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal

I put up quite a fight through Jackson Park, around the Museum of Science and Industry, and back on the lake path, improving my mark to 1:47:58.  But I struggled at the end.  Passion and drive were just barely enough to overcome my lack of experience, which I learned as I staggered through the finisher’s chute.  A friendly volunteer asked me a few questions about my experience as I strove to break out of the haze of fatigue.  I might have answered her questions far too quickly for her hand because Gatorade and rest were calling my name like sirens.

I would have to train for ten more months to beat that time.

Thirty-four half marathons later, I still remember that race very vividly.  It was the first time I had triumphed over my own achievement, left the rabbit in the dust and felt the rush of tangible improvement.  Since then, I have seen my personal bests improve by as little as six seconds to as much as four minutes.  Personal bests aren’t guaranteed – they require a mix of intense training and optimal conditions – but I’ve never felt more ravenous for a challenge than on that second race.

On June 7, I will return to the Chicago 13.1 Marathon to once again attack my PR, which now stands at 1:30:47.  I will be giving away complimentary registration courtesy of the 13.1 Marathon series to a random commenter, to be announced on March 31, 2014.  To participate:

1. Comment below with thoughts on your most memorable second attempt at a race of any distance and why it was meaningful to you.
2. Include your email or website so I know how to contact you.
3. You may comment more than once as long as it furthers the discussion.
4. If you want to comment but wouldn’t be able to make the race if you win, please let me know.

I(dan)tity Crisis

On running blogs and why I read what I read.

The act of writing, while simple and ecumenical, can be incredibly complicated.  If the task of properly conveying emotions and events isn’t difficult enough, we have to find our unique voice through trial and error, an often circular act that usually feels like playing darts with a chalkboard.  The internet only complicates things.  Bloggers by definition jot down very intimate thoughts with the explicit intent of someone else, sometimes many people, reading them.  So much can change when you write assuming an audience.  Some writers keep their most private thoughts at arm’s length from their digital audience, exaggerate their personalities to suit an overall narrative, or casually prevaricate about key story details to do the same.

The other day I was reading one of Jen’s posts, in which she discovered a forum that discussed running blogs and what turn readers away.  More to the point, it was a forum found on a website bluntly called Get Off My Internets.  I’m not one to get caught up in popularity contests, but reading about what inspires “the internet” to click away caught my attention.  Inevitably, it got me thinking about my own corner of webspace and how it fits in the barnyard of collective taste.

There is certainly no shortage of running blogs out there, which is great.  If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have any insightful sources of local races and I’d have met fewer amazing people in my travels.  But with so many runners writing about the sport, what makes me stand out?  It was a potentially dangerous question, one that could lead to an identity crisis, or worse, writer’s block.  But it was still worth examining, and the first place to start would be to ask myself, what do I look for in a running blog?

The first, and quite possibly most important element, is personality.  Despite being a runner and reading exclusively running blogs, when I read a race story, I’m not that interested in splits or time goals.  I understand in many instances, that’s the main focus of a recap.  After all, it’s a fitting and simple way to structure a richer, more complex story.  A lot of us wouldn’t race this often if we weren’t at least partially consumed by PRs and 5k splits, so avoiding these numbers would be near impossible.  But personality is what can tether all the data into a fitting portrait of a person.  If by the end of one post I feel like I’ve learned something about the writer outside of their finishing time, then we’ve achieved a little symbiosis.

Personality is, I will admit, a very vague term, but it can come out in a multitude of ways.  Some bloggers are insatiably enthusiastic about life, others like to add a snarky edge to their already off-color commentary, and a select few infuse a transcendental spirituality to what is otherwise a purely physical activity.  On a smaller scale, an injection of personality can come in the form of a detailed memory, a funny locution or a telling description.  Reading that you crossed the finish line is interesting, but connecting the experience to an earlier struggle or your favorite childhood book makes the feat compelling.

But a winning personality alone won’t do it for me.  After all, these are running blogs, and my attention tends to gravitate toward interesting racing stories.  Although I read a good amount of blogs, I’m very choosy both in my own writing and on which posts I read.  Put simply, I like reading about races.  From the snarling celerity of a 5k to the slow burn anguish of the marathon and beyond, every distance has its own unique story and my interest in reading anything else stems from that root.  I’ll shamefully admit that I tend to skip over multi-part stories and get straight to the starting line because that’s really what interests me.  I will gladly read about your sightseeing tour of a new city if you can manage to keep it within the frame of a footrace.  Yes, I realize that bloggers are more than just runners and that the infinitely colorful mosaic of their lives can’t always be enjoyed by covering a pre-set distance.  But so much can be told and learned through this narrow lens.

So that still leaves me with the original question: where do I stand among the droves of runners who write?  I’ve always been very particular with my output, be it posts, songs or even tweets.  Although many bloggers are much more prolific and post high-quality missives on a weekly or even semi-daily basis, I like to post infrequently.  I think part of me fears that I’ll bore people if they get too much of me.  Or I compare it to a magazine subscription: I’m much more likely to read an issue from cover to cover if I only receive one a month than if they stack up every week.  My hope is that when I do post, it doesn’t get lost in people’s feeds because it’s not a daily occurrence.

As for content, I’d like to think that I’m someone who is careful and precise about his writing.  Running, though primordial and primitive, has the remarkable capacity for so many variations of nuanced expression, and I want to be one writer of many who seizes the opportunity to tell a familiar story in a creative way.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn I majored in English, so perhaps I feel encouraged (or even pressured) toward using language beyond the usual, reliable methods and descriptions.  Some might call my writing over-thesaurus’d, which sounds like a terrific dinosaur name, and I wouldn’t blame them.

But I think there’s something special about describing a course as having “honeyed, autumnal hues” than “nice fall colors.”  Not everyone does it, so that can be my thing.  It won’t generate millions of hits or make me an internet star, but at least I enjoy it and can think of a few readers who get a kick out of it.  And if I can use a GRE word or two in the process, then that’s just a small bonus.  Or a myrmicine perquisite.

I’ll excuse myself.

What do you look for in a running blog?  Are there certain hallmarks shared by most blogs in your news feeds?  Is there one thing that can get you to completely X out of a post?  How badly did you roll your eyes at that last full paragraph?

Scenery vs. Tactics

Is it worth it to “speed up” a course at the expense of historic landmarks and cultural sights?

It was a typical Thursday night in the Solera home.  My wife and I had invited a couple of friends to the apartment and we were watching choice episodes of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation while enjoying pizza and a sampler pack of craft beers.  We had cycled through several episodes, often speaking over them because we knew them already by heart and could afford to break out into spontaneous conversation without ruining any of the thousand perfectly-timed zingers.

Although we were watching highly-regarded and universally appealing comedies, I also wanted to watch the Dubai Marathon, which was streaming live on the internet.  Known for its generous prize money and time incentives, the race has reliably produced some of the fastest times in the world in recent years.  And yet despite the attractive lure, this is a race that hasn’t featured a big-name, top ranked athlete since Haile Gebrselassi’s three victories between 2008 and 2010.  Unlike the World Marathon Majors, it never draws the most visible athletes but still produces fast times, usually thanks to talented newcomers and debutants hungry for its $200,000 first place prize.

But rather than subject my friends to the agony of watching a sport they don’t enjoy (especially one where very little actually happens until the last twenty minutes), I flipped open a laptop and set it next to me while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continued on TV with their reliable parade of hilarious one-liners.  Every now and then I would sneak a quick glance at the computer to see if I had missed a strategic breakaway or if the race had taken an aggressive turn.

Despite the athletes’ legs moving at an impressive rate, I couldn’t help but feel like they weren’t actually going anywhere.  Every time I looked at the screen, I saw the same image, as if the feed were on loop.  Whenever the broadcast would switch between the male lead pack to the first females, I swore they couldn’t have been within a block of each other.  They simply kept running on the same stretch of road.  While sets and characters on TV would change, the top runners on my laptop, most of whom were Ethiopian, seemed to be stuck on a giant treadmill.  The whole thing seemed ripped right out of a Twilight Zone episode.

Eventually 18-year old Tsegaye Mekonnen Asefa broke free from the lead pack and broke the junior world record for the marathon by finishing in an astounding 2:04:32.  Five years ago that would have made him the fourth fastest marathoner of all-time; today he has to settle for eleventh.  While his performance was incredible and Dubai once again delivered a slew of fast times, I was more focused on how boring the race seemed.  While the race contained its fair share of professional marathon hallmarks – the fast initial 5K split, the lead pack jockeying for position, the eventual thinning and final breakaway – it didn’t feel like the race really took them anywhere.

The reason for this is because the course is as simple as it can possibly get.

Taking a play from the Carlsbad 5000’s playbook, the Dubai Marathon’s course was changed this year to a long out-and-back along the coastline on Jumeirah Beach Road.  It is literally an incredibly long “T” shape with only the start and finish lines jutting from the road.  That’s it.

2014 Dubai Marathon Course Map

2014 Dubai Marathon Course Map

The minute I saw that, I realized why it seemed like nothing was different every time I looked at the live feed.  It wasn’t like watching the Chicago Marathon, which ushers runners in and out of the city three different times; or the New York City Marathon which proudly escorts the largest marathon field ever assembled through its five unique boroughs; or the LA Marathon’s “Stadium to the Sea” tour of the city.  Even if watching twenty East Africans run for a little over two hours isn’t your idea of fun, some of these broadcasts offer a compelling and diverse profile of historic cities.

But Dubai’s cameramen showed none of that.  Buoyed by the prestige of becoming the next world record course, organizers decided to change the course to allow for the fastest times possible.  But in doing so, I believe they may have sacrificed too much.

In recent decades the sport has exploded.  It is no longer the hobby of a deranged sliver of athletes but a worldwide phenomenon.  Friday morning, over 20,000 runners crossed the finish line in Dubai, all but a handful vying for a world’s best.  While I want to assume that the majority of those were proud of their accomplishments and wore the medal proudly, I’m confident that a large number were also disappointed with the simplicity of the course.  Is it really worth it to cater to the top 3 runners at the expense of denying the remaining 19,997 a diverse and engaging path?

It’s been said many times before that running a successful marathon requires a strong body but also a sound mind.  Many runners try to divide the 26.2-mile race into smaller, less intimidating pieces in order to cope with the challenge without bluntly acknowledging the insanely long distance.  However, if the entire ordeal is one seemingly interminable stretch followed by another one, this mental game loses its pieces.  A change of scenery can invigorate tired runners and something as simple as a turn can add an extra jolt to their speed.  Even Boston, which is technically a “straight” line from Hopkington to Boylston Street, has its turns and hills.

I’ve never been to Dubai, but the city has had its fair share of publicity in the last ten years.  Though the course as it was run on Friday runs past the famous Burj Al Arab and likely sports a view of the Burj Khalifa (then again, with its height I’m sure you can see it from pretty much anywhere), the view from my couch didn’t provide the typical city-tour that I’ve come to expect.  In my head, the perfect layout would escort runners along Jumeirah Beach Road, pass the Burj Al Arab, circumvent the Burj Khalifa on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard and even enter the trilobite-shaped archipelago known as the Palm Jumeirah.  It would be a great way to showcase a new city playing on the global stage.

But I doubt that’s possible.  The more I thought about it, I started to suspect that this was probably the best the organizers could design, even if they weren’t solely focused on engineering a fast course.  I’m sure this has to do with Dubai’s complex infrastructure, which includes a lot of onramps, thick highways and broad swaths of projects mid-development.  But when you sign up for a city’s namesake marathon, you expect a certain degree of sightseeing to go along with the depletion of glycogen.  Marathons aren’t just about notching fast times; they can be a vehicle to enjoy the world around us.  Paris starts on the Champs-Élysées, London ends at Buckingham Palace, New York in Central Park, all before winding through their own cities in almost unpredictable fashion.  And despite not being a perfectly straight and flat line like Dubai, all of these races have very fast course records below 2:06.

Maybe this has just been an overly long and petulant complaint about the race only appearing boring on TV for those of us who didn’t shell out the big bucks to fly to the Arabian Peninsula.  But there is a discussion to be had here: if your favorite race offered you the chance to alter the course, would you prefer to pull it to unique landmarks or would you remove a few turns to help you secure that shiny new PR?  Let’s word that differently:

Do you expect to see famous monuments when you sign up for expensive, big city races?  Are there any prestigious races that have surprised you, for better or worse, with their course?  If you had the money, would you run the Dubai Marathon, even though the path is straight-as-an-arrow?

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